Kerala to proceed with Athirappilly power project despite environmental concerns

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Thiruvananthapuram: The Kerala Government has affirmed that it will go ahead with a hydel power project proposed at Athirappilly, a bio-rich area in Thrissur district famed for an eponymous waterfall. This was conveyed to the Legislative Assembly by State Electricity Minister K Krishnan Kutty.

The minister informed that the project has not been abandoned and the State Government has given a no-objection certificate to the Kerala State Electricity Board Limited (KSEBL) in 2020 itself. But he made it clear that the project would be implemented after reaching a consensus with all the stakeholders.

The KSEBL plans to generate 163 MW of electricity by constructing a dam 5km above the Athirappilly Waterfalls on the Chalakudy river. The proposal has faced many controversies and protests given that the project site falls in a region considered to be highly ecologically sensitive.

It was in 2017 the Kerala government gave its nod for the Athirappilly hydroelectric project, which was originally planned over four decades ago but had to be put on the back burner due to various controversies and protests.

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Biodiversity hotspot
The Athirappilly-Vazhachal forest cover is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the entire India. The plants and trees in the belt have a stamp of its own. 

Opponents of the power project argue that it is not financially viable and may endanger a biodiversity hotspot. Plants, animals, insects and fish varieties will be wiped out from the area for ever if a new dam comes up in Athirappilly.

The Vazhachal zone has another significance as it is a gateway for animals to Eravikulam, Parambikulam and Peechi-Vazhani forest areas. Vazhachal lies on the long elephant pathway (aanathara) in the forest that starts from Parambikulam in Palakkad district to Pooyamkutty in Ernakulam district.

Environmentalists claim the free movement of elephants in the region will be hindered if the project is implemented.

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The destruction of pathways will have a huge negative impact on the ecology. The existing dams have already contributed to the destruction of the elephant paths. No study has been conducted so far on how far this has affected the life of the elephants. Even in Kerala, there is no other forest area which can boast of such a high density of elephants.

Birds' paradise
Athirappilly-Vazhachal is a home to hundreds of migratory and other birds. Very rare birds can be seen on the river sides. The climate and the availability of food attracts the birds most. It is a favourite spot for cuckoos who enjoy the serene comforts of the ecosystem encompassing river and forests.

This is the one of the spots where four rare varieties of hornbill — Common Grey Hornbill, Great Pied Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill and Malabar Grey Hornbill — are found. But now, the very existence of hornbills living on the riverside forests is in danger.

Malabar Pied Hornbill | Shutterstock images

The area is a permanent ecosystem for owl, butterflies, cuckoos and kites. Some bird varieties come here for laying eggs only.

Rare bird varieties are also seen in the area.

Fish varieties galore
According to experts, even the fifth longest river in India, Narmada, does not come near the Chalakudy River here in terms of rare fish varieties. The river has to its credit more than 100 fish varieties. Of this, many are facing extinction.

Recently, about 10 most endangered fish varieties were cited in the river. Another 23 fish varieties found there are also considered as endangered species. The fish varieties such as 'Horabagrus nigricollaris', a species of catfish endemic to India, and 'Travancoria elongata' are in plenty at the site where the proposed power project is coming up. The construction of a new dam would affect the flow of water in the river, causing severe damage to the ecosystem of the fish varieties.

The changes in the direction of the flow of water will affect lora and fauna in the nearby ecosystems. The migration of birds occurs in tune with the flow of water. The fluctuations occurring in the flow of water will affect the living organisms, including human beings. The truth is that Chalakudy river doesn't have the strength to withstand the onslaught of another dam.

Acute drinking water shortage would be be felt if groundwater levels recede.

Survival of rare species at stake
The area also provides a perfect ecosystem for wild animals.

Athirappilly also acts as a garden of butterflies. Almost 250 varieties of butterflies can be seen swarming across the trees in the area.

More than that 125 varieties of dragon fly are also being spotted in the area. The existing dams in the vicinity like the one in Peringalkoothu and the number of canals, tunnels and plantations in the area have already taken a heavy toll on the ecosystem in the belt.  

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